Turkey and the Holocaust

Jewish passengers on board the Salahattin, which carried 547 passengers from Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to Istanbul where they then boarded trains to Palestine. (October 29th, 1944)

Turkey possesses two Holocaust narratives.

The first involves the tragic sinking of the MV Struma, a ship laden with hundreds of Jews fleeing Europe that, after being stranded in Istanbul’s port was towed out to see and summarily sunk – know doubt accidentally – by a Soviet submarine. 781 passengers and crew perished. It is a bitter tale of bureaucratic ineptitude causing the deaths of innocent refugees.

But there is another side to the coin. After all, the Struma was only one of dozens of ships that navigated the Bosporus passageway to the Mediterranean, and for most, Palestine. The overwhelming majority traversed this dangerous course with success.

The Jewish Agency had numerous agents operating in Istanbul – some sources even claim a direct communication with the Turkish government, although little evidence of this has been found.

Either way, when holding up Turkey’s neutral position during WWII under a microscope it is quite easy to see that İnönü government “intentionally turned a blind eye”, if not went as far as unofficially going to extreme lengths to thwart the Nazi’s genocidal intentions.

Turkish diplomats such as Selahattin Ülkümen (Rhodes), İsmail Necdet Kent (Marseille), and Namik Kemal Yolga (Paris) managed to rescue Turkish Jews in their respective posts throughout the years of the war.  Cooperation between individuals such as Chaim Barlas, Ira Hirschmann, German Ambassador Franz von Papen, and Monsignor Nuncio Roncalli (who we know as Pope John XXIII) collectively saved tens of thousands of Jews from Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, et al.

But this was only made possible due to the Turks who sailed, ferried, and conducted safe passage over land and sea.

Perhaps the least known story, Turkey’s government paved the way for roughly 300 Jewish academicians and their families to immigrate to Turkey. In turn, these scholars helped build many of the republic’s institutional, educational, and medical foundations. This was largely due to Albert Einstein’s 1933 letter addressed to Atatürk himself.

Turkey’s story in the Holocaust is not one of a few shining stars, rather that of a newly born nation boldly taking an ethical stand while walking the tightrope of international politics. Directly situated in between Hitler’s “Final Solution” and an ever distant hope for freedom, Jews found in Turkey the transit country towards liberation; its citizens risking their lives for the sake of strangers.

May their memory be a blessing.

Selhattin Ülkümen managed to rescue 50 of the 1,700 Jews living on the Island of Rhodes.  His efforts were recognized by Israel in 1989 and he was named a Righteous Among The Nations. İsmail Necdet Kent, serving as the Turkish Consul-General in Marseille during WWII, gave citizenship to Jews facing deportation.  At one point, he boarded a train bound for a German concentration camp in order to prevent its departure.  The Turkish Postal Service issued these commemorative stamps in their honor in 2008.

Selhattin Ülkümen managed to rescue 50 of the 1,700 Jews living on the Island of Rhodes. His efforts were recognized by Israel in 1989 and he was named a Righteous Among The Nations. İsmail Necdet Kent, serving as the Turkish Consul-General in Marseille during WWII, gave citizenship to Jews facing deportation. At one point, he boarded a train bound for a German concentration camp in order to prevent its departure. The Turkish Postal Service issued these commemorative stamps in their honor in 2008.

Posted on by Gabriel in Turkey